MILWAUKEE – The worst thing a team struggling to win – and, more specifically, struggling to score runs – can do is try too hard to make something big happen.
The Nationals have been trying too hard for several weeks now, committing unforced errors in the field, on the bases and at the plate. It seems to be happening on a nightly basis during their current road trip. And tonight it may have come to a head in absolutely agonizing fashion.
Trailing the Brewers at the time 2-0 with one out in the top of the seventh, Lane Thomas drove a ball off the wall in deep right-center. And when it caromed to the side a bit, Thomas had himself an easy triple.
Except third base coach Gary DiSarcina wanted more. He waved Thomas around, shooting for an unlikely inside-the-park home run. And when the Brewers successfully relayed the ball to the plate to nail Thomas for the second out of the inning and the home crowd of 29,609 roared with approval, all the Nationals could do was watch in disbelief as it happened yet again.
"He thought he may have had a shot," manager Davey Martinez said of DiSarcina. "But when you don't score any runs, you try anything you can to get a run across the plate."
The failed inside-the-park homer didn’t decide tonight’s series opener. The Nats wound up losing 7-0 after Austin Voth allowed five tack-on runs in the eighth while recording only one out to turn a tight game into another rout. But wouldn’t you know what happened immediately after the out at the plate in the seventh: Riley Adams singled to left. At worst, it would’ve trimmed the deficit to one run and perhaps established some positive momentum for a lineup that desperately needs it.
Instead, it was the latest (and possibly worst) sign of misery for a club that can’t seem to get out of its own way these days.
"As a team collectively, we (need) to try to take of what our own job is and not try to do too much," Thomas said. "I think a lot of guys are trying to do too much at the plate and trying to win the game themselves. We've all talked, and we just need to get back to: Do your job, and let the next guy behind you do his. Maybe that will lead to something."
There were, to be sure, positive developments tonight. Erick Fedde tossed five scoreless innings before surrendering a two-run homer to Rowdy Tellez in the sixth. Maikel Franco, César Hernández and Josh Bell combined to turn only the second triple play in club history, this one of the traditional 5-4-3 variety, in the bottom of the seventh.
"We needed that," Franco said of the ultimate defensive play. "Close game. One pitch, three outs. We got excited about it."
But at the end of the night, there was that big, fat zero on the scoreboard. And all kinds of reason to believe it shouldn’t have been that way.
How inept was the Nationals’ offensive attack tonight against Brewers starter Eric Lauer? Of the first 18 outs they made through six scoreless innings, 16 never left the infield. (Only Nelson Cruz and Bell managed to fly out.)
Of course, it’s hard to hit the ball out of the infield when you bunt, which is what all three Nats who stepped to the plate in the top of the fifth attempted to do. Victor Robles and Hernández were successful in getting their bunts down, though each was fielded by Lauer for relatively easy outs. Alcides Escobar wisely pulled back his bunt attempt on a pitch out of the zone, but he still wound up striking out later in the at-bat.
So it went for a Nationals lineup that has proven woefully ineffective of late, either shut out or held to one run in five of the last eight games. But then came that glimmer of hope in the seventh when Thomas hit his drive to deep right-center. It rattled off the wall and caromed back toward center field. It was an easy triple. But DiSarcina, who already has come under fire for having runners thrown out at the plate during his first 40 games on the job, pushed the envelope again and paid the price for it.
"I saw him waving me, so I just assumed maybe they had missed the cutoff guy, or something happened," said Thomas, who added he's never hit an error-free inside-the-park homer in his life. "That's what was going through my head: Shoot, I'm going to have an easy homer there without having to hit over the fence."
Martinez did emerge from the dugout and spent a good minute berating second base umpire and crew chief Jeff Nelson, who said a review to determine if catcher Omar Narváez blocked the plate couldn't take place because the Nationals didn't request it within the allotted 20-second window. Martinez claims they asked for it in 17 seconds.
"We felt like he blocked the plate," the manager said. "I don't know if they would've overturned it, because sometimes they'll tell you the ball takes him into the runner. But it was worth a challenge, I thought."
All of this overshadowed what was another effective outing for Fedde. Though he allowed at least one baserunner in each of his first four frames, the righty never allowed more than that one baserunner and was able to keep the Brewers from crossing the plate.
When he took the mound for the bottom of the sixth, Fedde’s season ERA stood at a surprisingly solid 3.69. Alas, that’s when Milwaukee’s batters, taking their third trip to the plate, finally got to him.
The rally began with No. 2 hitter Luis Urías, who worked the count full before drawing a leadoff walk. After Christian Yelich grounded to second, Fedde tried to come inside with a cutter to Tellez, a pitch that successfully resulted in outs his previous two at-bats. This time, though, Tellez was able to turn on it and send it flying down the right field line for a two-run homer.
"I hate to say it, but when you get a guy out with that pitch twice, and then he comes up and makes an adjustment, that's on me to maybe try to get him out a different way," Fedde said. "Kudos to him for making an adjustment."
That two-run homer produced the only two runs scored in this game until it became a runaway in the eighth. No matter how hard the Nationals tried to score a run of their own.
"We have to stay (together) as a team," Franco said. "When things are not going well, not just me, everybody's trying to do too much at the same time. But it's part of the game. You have to forget about what happened today and come back tomorrow and try to have a nice game for everybody."